Software is an iceberg. You’ll get hurt by the submerged parts.

Software Quality is an iceberg.

The tip of the iceberg is the small part sticking out that everybody can see. A non-IT person judges software with a far smaller subset of criteria than an IT professional: Functionality, performance, and usability.

To a normal user, the interface is the software. I regularly have to choke off exasperated comments when a customer tell me ‘but it’s only one extra button‘.

Lurking beneath the murky waters are those criteria which only IT professionals see: reliability, maintainability, security.

End-users should not be expected to see these ‘underlying’ aspects, but if the decision-makers (i.e. the ones with the purse string) don’t see under the water, you’re doomed to produce bad software. Tell-tale signs are:

  • There is no budget for IT maintenance
  • The only time fresh money is given is for new functionalities – money is never given for a functionality-free maintenance
  • Projects get stopped as soon as the software is barely out of beta testing. Finally, as a programmer, you’ve produced software that works, but in your mind, this is just a first version. There are lots of bits and bobs of useless code left in your software, debug code that writes to system.out, the object and data structure is a mess and could be optimised, you’ve yet to apply a profiler to your code to see where are the bottlenecks. And then the project gets stopped: ‘it works well enough’. That is very upsetting, and possibly one of the main reasons that in-house IT jobs are far less attractive than IT jobs within software companies.

If you recognise yourself as a company, then you should give more power to the IT department. Too many companies treat IT as a necessary, needlessly costly evil. IT should be an essential, central part of your company strategy. There is no other region of a company’s activity which gives you more of a competitive edge.

Too many companies (and I am looking at banks and insurances in particular) have failed to see that they are, essentially, a software company. You need to have a CIO who understands his trade, and accept that he is going to spend money for stuff which doesn’t make sense to you, or at least doesn’t seem to change anything.

If you are only ready to pay for the IT stuff which is visible – more functionality, for instance, but no money for a refactoring exercise which would add stability but not change the functionality, the accumulated technical debt is going to bite you at some point. It might be that an application gets exponentially difficult to change, or it might be that you have a massive data loss that you can’t recover from because the backup software was not up-to-date and nobody did an actual restore as part of regular maintenance.

If you are a developer, and you find yourself in such an environment, you’ll have to go guerilla. You’ll need to surreptitiously improve your code whenever you have the opportunity. Try to leave any code you touch a little bit better than before. Notice duplications and remove them. If you didn’t understand part of a code, then document it after you have understood it. If variable names are unclear, then rename them to something better. It’s an thankless occupation, because there is the risk that you break things that were working, and nobody will really care that you reduced the codebase by half, but it will help you progress and it will increase the quality of your work.

IT is surprising in that often the perception of quality is completely at odds with real quality, because of this iceberg effect. I once used to work in an environment where colleagues were doing terrible things – changing code directly in the production environment, and only doing quick-and-dirty cosmetic patches, but were actually perceived by the customers as delivering excellent quality, because the response times were so fast.

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